Red Letter Christianity

Red Letter Christianity

Red Letter Christianity

There is a very interesting article in the latest edition of Third Way magazine on whether a new political right wing evangelical Christianity is emerging in the UK akin to that in the US. The conclusion of the authors is that it is not. There are variety of cultural and political differences between the UK and US which account for this. One reason is that our main right wing  party (The conservative party) is largely secular. For example while the party is highly split over the issue, the Prime minister (from that party) and the cabinet (predominately from that party) are strongly pro Gay marriage and will give conservative reasons as to why its a good idea. Other reasons are that UK Christians are generally left of centre (we are practically Marxists compared to the our fellow believers in the US) and British people generally are fairly tolerant.

This is very different to the situation in the US where since the 1970’s evangelical Christianity has become associated predominately with one political party (the Republicans) and a few key moral issues, such as being anti-gay and anti-abortion, whilst being in favour of “small government” and no gun control. There are some US Christians have consistently questioned this dominant evangelical world-view. Evangelicals such as Ronald Sider, Jim Wallis and Tony Campolo have consistently stressed there are other issues of importance and other ways of voting. More recently they have been joined by others such as Shane Claiborne who lives in an intentional community in Philadelphia. Shane Claiborne wrote a book called “Irresistible Revolution” part manifesto and part biography. We read this book in our homegroup as our Easter read and I found it very challenging with remarkable number of parallels with the ideas coming out of the Transition movement. Tony Campolo is someone I have admired for years, so when I heard them at Greenbelt 2012 plugging a book they had written together I knew I would end up buying it.

The resulting book “Red Letter Christianity” is a conversation between the two, the new generation and an older one over a wide range of faith and social issues. The book takes its title from the bibles that used to underline Jesus’ words and the idea is that the New Testament is about more than sex and taxes. The structure is that of a conversation between the two and is similar in content and style to a book that Campolo and Mclaren wrote some years ago called Adventures in Missing the Point: How the Culture-Controlled Church Neutered the Gospel”. From the purposes of this blog the review will be a partial one covering chapters that are relevant to this blog (community, economy, debt and the environment).

There is little doubt that community is going to be increasingly important in a world affected by peak oil. Globalisation will go into reverse, material goods will become more expensive and sharing what we have will make very good sense. The question is how much must we plan for our future security and how much must we practise what Jesus taught in Matthew 6v19 or Luke 12v33 and to do this do we need to live in community? The authors plainly have different views based on their generational differences about forsaking all and living in community. Being British some of this discussion is not relevant to me. At the moment we have a fairly comprehensive health and social security system paid for through taxation. So some of the examples given in the book are irrelevant here, but community living and planning for retirement certainly are. And as we wrote about it in our book we may need to pay peoples energy bills. Its certain that not all the early church lived in intentional communities as described in Acts 2. Indeed Claiborne may have taken it further than that described in that chapter by actually living together. In the rest of Acts or the New Testament there is little evidence of community living, but there is evidence of mutual support when it was necessary (such as the collection for victims of the famine in Acts 11v28-29).

Whilst there may be little biblical exhortation to live in communities, there is definitely no biblical ban on doing so, in fact there is little teaching either way. Since about the 5th century some Christians have banded together in community living and much of this has been very useful. Without monks the Bible and all classical learning would have been lost. The monasteries and nunneries also engaged with their communities in offering very basic charity, healthcare and refuge. In the future churches (even members from different ones as here) entering into partial community (not living together but sharing most processions) makes perfect sense and is a type of lifestyle I find increasingly attractive. [This more loose association is suggested later in the book in the family chapter. In this chapter we learn that Shane has got married, much to the disappointment of many single Christian females]. Whether this means we should avoid planning for the future is something I’m less sure about. When push comes to shove we all plan for the future, even if its just what we are going to eat this week. One of the problems with being a Red Letter Christian is that there is more to the bible than Jesus’ words. Proverbs in particular suggests some planning for the future can be justified (Proverbs 6v6-11, Proverbs 16v1-4 and Proverbs 21v5 and Proverbs 27v23-27). I’m still not sure what to think, but I’ve never felt particularly guilty for putting something aside for a “rainy day” or old age. Maybe its a question of motive. Where does our motive lie? Like parable of the man building bigger barns to hold all his produce (Luke 12v16-21)? Or holding on lightly to our possessions. As the writer of proverbs also says.

“Better a little with righteousness than much gain with injustice.” Proverbs 16v8.

Do not wear yourself out to become rich; be wise enough to restrain yourself.” Proverbs 23v1.

This moves us neatly onto economics. The world economy has been through its worst time (perhaps) ever. This should have lead to some serious questioning about the type of system we want and whether its working. It hasn’t which is a huge opportunity lost. Equally depressing is an internet search on “Christian economics”. This merely throws up site after site expressing a very right wing evangelical defence of the current neoliberal economic system, which even under its own terms has failed. Claiborne kicks of the discussion in this chapter, again seeing the current crisis as an opportunity to learn new skills and rebuild community. Apparently research has shown economic crises are a shock at first but after the shock has worn off communities flourish through self help. I hope this is true and there are some signs it might be here with the rise of food banks and other self help (many of the recipients of these are in low paid work). The rest of the chapter (a trawl through some parts of the old and new testament) is less useful. While I am ashamed to say I had never thought of communion as being a social leveller before, this hardly makes an alternative economic manifesto. Post oil economics is something I’m interested in and I was really looking forward to reading this chapter which I hoped would give some pointers in this direction. Whilst this chapter lays down some general precepts, I came away no clearer about what alternative economic system should look like. This is unlike in “No oil in the lamp” where we tried to lay down some biblically based alternative economic principles. We need an economic system that works not just for billionaires but ordinary people (and planet). As Claiborne writes in what is perhaps the best quote in the book “After all most of the world wakes up in the morning on the wrong side of capitalism”.

The environment is another area which Christians find difficult for some reason. The John Ray Initiative has recently released a survey on Christian attitudes to the environment amongst ministers in the UK. The survey results are what you would expect with evangelicals less concerned than ministers from other church types. This chapter in the book is a worthy attempt to raise this an issue. Whilst there is some theology, more usefully Claiborne shares a number of the practical things his community has been doing. Interestingly this includes growing food in the middle of the inner city. We tried to put some examples of churches growing food in our book and failed to find any (although we have found some since publication). This and other examples again suggest the simple way is living out the transition dream. Tony Campolo does pull Shane Claiborne slightly back to earth in countering the “small changes” argument which he makes. Campolo points out we do face some major issues and these require addressing at a macro level. Unfortunately we are way beyond small changes being enough. Finally its nice to see they don’t make the mistake made in “Adventures in Missing the Point” which states carbon monoxide is responsible for global warming.

Tony Campolo starts the debt chapter off talking about how to pay down America’s debt (as I write this we are days away from the so called “fiscal cliff”). The chapter morphs into a discussion around the Jubilee 2000 campaign (I was there in Birmingham along with hundreds of thousands of others) and then about fair trade and US farm subsidies. Useful stuff, but again like the economics chapter no definite conclusions are reached. The UK and the US have used quantitative easing to try to stimulate their economies. Rather than give this money to the the banks, it would have been better to print money to pay down government and private debt in an up-to-date jubilee moment whilst inflation is low. Another way to do this would have been a financial transaction tax (the Tobin Tax).

Personally I believe the association of our faith with any one political party and a few issues is a disaster for both faith and politics. This book is a worthy attempt to fight back and show there are other evangelical views out there that we do not necessarily hear about. There are some omissions though. It would have been interesting to have a chapter on evolution and after recent events something on guns. Perhaps some of the books apparent vagueness is due to its discussion format, but this is part of its charm. Maybe the inability to reach conclusions is a deliberate attempt to provoke thought and discussion. There is a website and Facebook page for this purpose with links to articles of current interest related to the book. Although some areas such as the environment are almost completely absent (I’ve offered to rectify this).

The idea that many younger evangelicals are hungry for a faith that moves beyond a few obsessions as well as exploring alternative ways of worshipping is undoubtedly true. The whole rise of the emerging church is a symptom of this. This book is essential reading for such people but also perhaps more importantly for more conservative evangelicals. Overall this is a well written, enjoyable and thought provoking read. Even when I thought it could have been more specific it really made me think about the issues. If this is the aim then the book has more than achieved this.

Disclaimer.  I paid for the book and have no financial reward from its sale.

Neil

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